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Operapedia: The Barber of Seville 

Henry Stewart cuts his way through Rossini’s greatest comedy.


Operapedia Barber Rossini lg 217
© Lebrecht Music & Arts  

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“So you’re the composer of The Barber of Seville,” Beethoven said to Rossini when they met in 1822. “I congratulate you. It will be played as long as Italian opera exists.” He was right: every season, Rossini’s Barber is among the ten most-produced operas in the world. Verdi also liked it. “For the abundance of true musical ideas, for its comic verve and the accuracy of its declamation,” he wrote, “it is the most beautiful opera buffa there is.” Willa Cather, not so much. “Had operatic composition never advanced beyond the frank artifice and blithe triviality of Rossini,” the novelist wrote in 1900, reviewing the Met’s traveling Barber, “operagoing would scarcely have become a serious avocation.”

First Performances

At its first performance, at Rome’s Teatro Argentina, in February 1816, the piece was called Almaviva, after its romantic hero, to placate the rabid fans of composer Giovanni Paisiello, who had a hit when he adapted the same source material in 1782. Paisiello partisans showed up anyway and heckled; Rossini, who conducted the performance, got so worked up he refused to lead subsequent performances. Almaviva didn’t become Barbiere until that August, for a revival in Bologna; Paisiello had died two months earlier.

 

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Hit Tune

For many people, Figaro’s entrance, “Largo al factotum,” is opera, especially that classic moment when the orchestra drops away and the baritone repeats “Fiiiiigaro” at a quickening pace. The whole allegro vivace aria, with its tongue-tangling Italian, is delivered at Sondheim speed, making it among the most difficult to sing, though many great baritones have nailed it, live or on recording, from Thomas Hampson to Dmitri Hvorostovsky. Even Kelsey Grammer took a turn, as Sideshow Bob in The Simpsons’ “Treehouse of Horror XXVI,” with a slightly altered text: “I did it, I did it, I did it, I killed Bart dead!” 

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© Craig Mathew 

Time and Place

Rossini’s librettist, Cesare Sterbini, adapted a play by Pierre-Augustin Beaumarchais, the first of his trilogy centered on Figaro, a servant and factotum. In Barber, he’s the barber; in Mozart’s earlier Marriage of Figaro, set after the action of Barber, he’s the count’s personal valet. No opera adaptation of Beaumarchais’s third Figaro play, La Mère Coupable, ever entered the general repertoire the way the others had—not even Darius Milhaud’s, from 1966. However, John Corigliano and William M. Hoffman’s postmodern take, The Ghosts of Versailles, was well-received at its world premiere in 1991 at the Met and, more recently, at LA Opera in 2015, in a production featuring Patti LuPone that the Los Angeles Daily News called “spectral spectacular.”

 

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© Twentieth Century Fox/Zade Rosenthal/Photofest 

In Pop Culture

In a season-five episode of Seinfeld called “The Barber,” the series’s iconic interstitial slap bass is often replaced by excerpts from the Barber overture—which is fitting, as the buffa plot involves Jerry’s getting haircuts from his regular barber’s nephew and keeping it a secret, because a man’s barber can be as jealous as a romantic partner. The rival haircutters eventually bond over their shared appreciation of Edward Scissorhands and its tragic hero, who for the present generation has perhaps become our most prominent ear-lowerer. Figaro who?

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© akg-images/De Agostini Picture Library 

Perennial Showstopper

As with William Tell or Le Nozze di Figaro, many people come to Barber to hear its super-famous overture, from its hesitantly silly beginning to its grand finale, with several hum-along-happily sections in between. Everyone knows it from Warner Brothers cartoons, especially “Rabbit of Seville,” Chuck Jones’s 1950 short, in which Bugs Bunny escapes Elmer Fudd by sneaking into a Hollywood Bowl-like venue; they both wind up onstage, singing and dancing and clowning along with the famous score. Rossini actually recycled the music from a previous opera, Aureliano in Palmira, from 1813, and had already reused it once before—for Elisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra, in 1815.

The Basics

A count disguised as a student woos a rich girl. With the help of a barber, he outwits her guardian and marries her.

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© akg-images/IAM 

The Performance We Wish We’d Seen

In Act II, Count Almaviva, disguised as a music teacher, gives Rosina a music lesson. Typically, sopranos have sung Rossini’s “Contro un cor” here, but, beginning as early as the opera’s first revival, prima donnas have established a tradition of inserting an aria or song of their choosing—whether by Rossini or not. Soprano Adelina Patti, in the later nineteenth century, sang many different tunes here, including arias by Verdi and Meyerbeer, but none more well-received than “Home, Sweet Home,” which, critic Gustav Kob­bé wrote, “never failed to bring down the house, although the naïveté with which she sang it was more affected than affecting.” Check it out for yourself, on a late-in-life recording, available on YouTube.

 


Spoiler Alert

A rock band in the awful 2015 NBC miniseries The Slap is improbably called Useless Precaution, which Peter Sarsgaard impossibly recognizes as “the name of the fake opera in The Barber of Seville.” Rosina teases her guardian, Dr. Bartolo, during her music-lesson scene, telling him she’ll sing a piece from L’Inutil Precauzione—which is also the second half of the opera’s full title, referring to the futile lengths to which Bartolo has gone to cloister Rosina so he can marry her—such as when he goes to move a ladder, lest someone climb through the window, and Rosina quickly marries the Count, who has already climbed through the window.
Operapedia Barber slap lg 417 © NBC/Photofest 

 


 

Something Completely Different

Last year, the one-time enfant terrible novelist Bret Easton Ellis created a four-minute black-and-white film called “Figaro” for the Paris Opéra. The video—click above to watch—follows an opera singer, played by Philip Rhys; he cracks during an audition as Barber’s Figaro, then treats himself to a wild night out, scored to “Largo al Factotum”: he smokes, drinks, has sex with a stranger in a bathroom, takes selfies, carjacks another stranger at gunpoint and does pushups. It leads to a killer audition the next day, suggesting that the role of the wildman barber can’t merely be sung—it must be lived!

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© Johan Elbers

Where It Is This Season

There are ninety-nine performances in thirty cities scheduled through late July, including, this month, the end of a revival at the Met, with the great Peter Mattei in the title role, as well as other productions in Moscow, Athens, Trieste and beyond. spacer


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